When the COVID-19 pandemic forced America’s restaurants to close last year, the Texas Roadhouse chain uploaded its “Jukebox Jams” to a Spotify playlist called, appropriately, “Texas Roadhouse Jukebox Jams.” It would take two full days to listen to the entire thing. The playlist’s 729 songs run the gamut from country classics like “Bloody Mary Morning” to contemporary hits, like Luke Bryan’s 2019 song “Knockin’ Boots” (sample lyric: “Boots need knockin’ / Knockin’ boots / Knockin’ boots / Me and you”). The Jukebox Jams are, ostensibly, the songs that — in a normal world — could be playing right this minute at any of Texas Roadhouse’s 600-plus locations, in 49 states and nearly a dozen countries around the world, with a particular international popularity in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The sound of an actual Texas Roadhouse is typically more boisterous: There’s the steady clang of cutlery digging into the “Ft. Worth Ribeye” steaks, the crunching of peanut shells beneath customers’ feet, and the familiar yee-haws that round out every chorus of “Happy Birthday,” which is customarily sung as the birthday gal or guy sits atop a leather saddle.
Texas Roadhouse is the brainchild of Kent Taylor, the chain’s founder and CEO who died by suicide last week. He had survived a bout of COVID-19, but the tinnitus that arrived with the virus was reportedly too much for Taylor to bear. When I saw the news, I immediately thought of the company’s peculiar origin story, and Taylor’s tenacity. From the chain’s very beginning, Taylor was a man who wanted to replicate Texas all over the world, to re-create one place within the borders of a completely different place. During this year of isolation, travel restrictions, and social distancing, that is an idea that stuck with me.
After sketching out the designs for the restaurant on a napkin that I can only assume was surprisingly thick and wide, Taylor launched the first Texas Roadhouse in Clarksville, Indiana, in 1993. To this day, the company is headquartered in Louisville, and the first outpost in the state of Texas didn’t even open until 1997. According to Travis Doster, who is the senior director of public relations for Texas Roadhouse, the chain did maintain a P.O. box in the state for the first decade of its existence because, Doster told me a couple months ago, “Kent said, ‘My gosh, I got to do something so people think I’m in Texas.’”
As a native Texan, I never wanted to like Texas Roadhouse. But when the pandemic hit, I found myself stuck in Brooklyn, unable to safely fly home to San Antonio, the city where my parents live and where breakfast tacos on homemade flour tortillas sell for a dollar. But I could go to Texas Roadhouse. A simplified and commodified version of Texas, I figured, was better than no Texas at all.
There aren’t any outposts in New York City proper, but eight Texas Roadhouses, with their enormous neon signs and waving Texas flags, surround the five boroughs like an old Western siege. In New Rochelle, on my first-ever visit to a Texas Roadhouse, I ordered the Rattlesnake Bites, glorious fried balls of jalapeño and Jack cheese. “They’re hot,” my waiter warned me. “I sure hope so,” I replied.
I was also struck by the restaurant’s never-ending baskets of sourdough rolls, which always arrive steaming hot and — once you slather them with cinnamon butter — taste, not unpleasantly, like Eggo waffles.
Before Texas Roadhouse, Taylor worked at a Bennigan’s in Dallas. According to Doster, it was then that Taylor first fell in love with the state, driving the farm-to-market roads to see what he’d find. When he moved back to Kentucky, he missed the mom-and-pop restaurants of Texas and developed a damn-near stubborn ambition to replicate that back-road feeling all over the country. (Three out of five of the first Texas Roadhouses failed, but Taylor pushed forward anyway.)
When the pandemic hit, that attitude came in handy. In early 2020, Taylor told his team that “jet airplanes don’t have mirrors on them for a reason — they’re going fast and forward.” Then he encouraged all of his restaurants’ managers to do whatever it took to stay safe and successful. One location sold $5 hamburgers on the side of the road. Staff at a Houston location, upon learning of the COVID-induced grocery shortages, sold “COVID survival kits” at drive-through markets, which included beef, produce, and toilet paper. For his part, Taylor forfeited his own salary and incentive bonus for the year so the company could continue to pay frontline employees, even when the doors to Texas Roadhouses were temporarily closed.
All of the efforts paid off. Casual-dining restaurants, in sad and stark contrast with local restaurants, have fared pretty well during the pandemic. And Texas Roadhouse has been especially successful. A 2020 report from insight company TOP Data confirmed what Texas Roadhouse’s impressive market gains seemed to suggest: During the pandemic, Texas Roadhouse has been the No. 1 casual-dining restaurant in 15 states, most of them in the Northeast and Midwest.
Before I head home from any Texas Roadhouse, I tour around the restaurant. I walk past Willie’s Corner, dedicated to Willie Nelson, who was a longtime poker buddy of Taylor’s. I look for the neon Shiner logos on the wood-paneled walls. And I take in the giant mural, which is unique to each outpost. In Teterboro, Andy the Armadillo — the Roadhouse mascot — is depicted sightseeing at the Statue of Liberty. Cozied up to his lizard friend, the illustrious armadillo pokes his snout out of Lady Liberty’s crown, smiling affectionately at the New York Harbor. It is simultaneously too earnest and utterly ridiculous.
During my most recent trip to a Roadhouse, I started my meal with a $7 margarita, on the rocks, with salt. It was too sweet, too sour, and too boozy — and it was the perfect embodiment of the Texas Roadhouse spirit. If you’re going to be too much, be too much of everything.